Francis Kéré is known for his schools in Gando. What do they have in common with the Parliament House he is presenting here in Venice? Whoever has seen Francis Kéré lecturing would agree that he belongs to two worlds: the written and the oral culture. The schools and parliament are themselves a synthesis of shared global standards and specific local values.
A prince of his tribe (that is what the scars on his face stand for), Kéré knew he had to come back to his community after leaving his village to study, first in Ouagadougou and then in Germany.
His giving back came in the form of building schools. He brought Western standards to create an appropriate educational environment: double roofs, cross-ventilation, thermal mass, and brise-soleil to get the right temperature and light conditions within the classrooms. He then had to build the schools and his choices responded to local codes: while having to explain technical drawings to illiterate people, as is typical in oral cultures, he “acted” the procedures for how to get a pavement done—if people had to smash gravel with their feet to turn it into a paste, he would spend (both in lectures and on-site explanations) several seconds kicking the ground, until the audience got the body movement and the experience, and not just the idea. Or, when he chose the building system, he didn’t go for the most efficient but for the most inclusive—that is, the most efficient in terms of local values, as it allowed women and children to participate. The clash of the two cultures came when the funding source in Europe said it was unacceptable to have children on the construction site (child labor).
So he asked the children to leave. The community reacted with anger to such discrimination: why were children deprived of the right to build their own school? So he asked the children to come back.
Such friction between two worlds also appeared when Kéré was commissioned to build Burkina Faso’s new Parliament House. The project started along with the promise of a new democratic standard after the end of a twenty-seven-year dictatorship in 2014. But infighting among factions interrupted the project soon after it began. He was then called to give a cost estimate on an extremely fast track, but was asked not to return to Burkina Faso a few days later since the President was under arrest following another military coup. Kéré thought that this political instability, more than a building for the writing of laws, required a place where people could have conversations, an architecture able to host the oral and not only the written culture of democracy. In addition to this, he thought he had to offer a new perspective to his fellow citizens—nobody in his country has ever seen things from above, nobody gets the big picture, he said. The highest viewpoint in Burkina Faso is a twelve-meter high tree that is not even in the city but in the countryside. So the whole point of the Parliament House will be, he said, to go above twelve meters in a public building. The West may contribute with structural knowledge, building efficiency, or environmental standards that improve the quality of life. But the ultimate value proposal is based on a local wisdom and local codes that the Western world should only serve, not guide.